Tame Your "To Do" List
by C.S. Clarke, Ph.D.
Are you feeling a bit overwhelmed? Over-worked? Over-stressed? Does looking at your "to do" list make you want to weep? Welcome to "Too-Much-To-Do-Purgatory." Want out? Here's the key: If you are feeling overwhelmed, you are probably quite rational and need to listen to those feelings. It's your "to-do" list that is irrational and unworkable. You can and must fix that.
The "to do" list is" judgement negative." The idea of a "to do" list is that you are able to anticipate, plan and schedule what you must do in a way that helps make sure it gets done, and preferably, gets done efficiently. However, you are responsible for what you list and to whom you assign it.
The "to do" list is not a wish list. It is also not a list of things you'd like to do if you can find a way to squeeze them in. Check your list and make sure all the stuff on it really has to be done. What would happen if it weren't done? Drop all wishes and "like-to's" from the list. Drop everything that doesn't really have to be done.
Make sure all of it has to be done in the order, at the time or by the time you've assigned it. What are the consequences of changing the order or timing? What are the benefits? If it doesn't have to be done today, drop it in favor of something that does have to be done.
Make sure you are the one that has to actually do it. I've found that most people who have too much to do have created that for themselves by assigning to themselves many activities that could or should be done by others. It is highly probable that a number of items on your "to do" list should be changed to "see-that-someone-gets-this-done."
A quick, if morbid, way of cutting through to the "have to's" is to ask yourself, "If I died today, would anything on this list have to be done? Would it get done? If so, who would have to do it?" Get that other person to do it and take it off your list.
When I talk to someone about taming the "to do" list, I hear two primary objections:
1. "I have to do all the stuff on my "to do" list. It's my job. It's been assigned to me by my employer. I don't have a choice." People who say something like that usually are thinking in extremes. They imagine that they will be fired if they don't do everything they've been asked, so they work longer and harder and try to get done way more than they actually can. In actuality, the greatest number of employers, while they are interested in using their employees to the fullest extent, are not unreasonable. Management commonly responds to requests for help with help. So do coworkers. Swallow your pride and ask for a review of your workload. See if you are mistaken about how much the organization expects you to do. See if there are easier methods they have for accomplishing it. Organizations and teams realize that work doesn't get done effectively, efficiently or well when their individual members are burning out. (On the other hand, if your organization is in the extreme, you can't get help from management or coworkers, their expectations are impossible and you do have more than you can do, a job change is in order. You can't work a "to do" list with too much on it.)
2. "I have to do all this myself, because it does all have to be done and I can't afford to hire someone else to do it for me. (Or I don't have time to stop and train someone to do it for me.)" When I hear this, almost invariably I find that a) There really are items on the list that don't have to be done; and/or b) What has to be done is poorly timed or scheduled; and/or c) The methods or procedures for accomplishing the work are not well-thought-out and are inefficient; and/or d) The client has not explored all resources for help -- such as family, friends, volunteers and trainees who pay for their training.
Be ruthless in reexamining your "to do" list. There is very little in life that absolutely must be done. There are few processes, methods and schedules that can't be improved. And there is much more help available, if you are willing to admit you need it, look for it and accept it.